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The Surprisingly Scandalous History of Early Seattle

While many towns were built on corruption, greed and scandal, few are as embracing of these embarrassing roots as the residents of Seattle. Of course, it wasn’t always this way, around fifty years ago, most of the city’s residents only knew of the white-washed town history that was (and still is) retold in school history books. Fortunately, when the city threatened to tear down the city’s gorgeous Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the historical Pioneer Square area, residents rushed to save their town’s heritage. To help protect this historical area, one amateur historian and professional journalist, Bill Speidel, set out to uncover the back story of the slum-ridden district. In the end, his findings resulted in the famous Underground Tour and helped establish the neighborhood as a preservation district, ensuring the continued protection of all the historical buildings in the area. So what is so important about Pioneer Square and why should anyone outside of the city care? Read on, my friends, read on.

The First Settlements

In 1851, a troupe of pioneers known as the Denny Party established the first white settlement in the area at Alki Point. The group was led by Arthur A Denny, who soon realized that Alki Point wasn’t a good place for a settlement and then moved his party to a tide flat off of Elliot Bay, which they named Duwamps, after the local Native American tribe. Within the first few years of settlement, another leader, Doctor David Swinson Maynard moved in from Cleveland. Whereas the members of the Denny Party were dedicated teetotalism Methodists, Doc Maynard was a heavy drinker who believed vice was one of the most effective industries in a frontier town.  Maynard convinced the other townspeople to rename the city Seattle after the Duwamps Chief Seattle, who was a friend of his. He did so not only to help honor his friend, but also because he knew Seattle would be a lot easier to promote to people back East than Duwamps, which sounded like a swamp. In 1852, Maynard built his cabin, and contained a store inside of it, establishing the first shop in Seattle. He soon obtained the right to host a post office in his store, meaning everyone had to visit his store to get their mail. Throughout his life, Maynard helped build a number of important establishments in Seattle, building the first pharmacy, hotel, casino, saloon, brothel and hospital in the area. When plots of land were officially established, Denny’s property stretched north of Pioneer Square, while Maynard's extended to the south. Because each established their streets according to their piece of shoreline, the streets now have an awkward bend at what is now Yesler Way and that area of town is noticeably jumbled when it comes to driving. Maynard helped jump start the city’s industry by offering his land at exceptionally cheap prices, provided the buyer started building a business on it immediately. He attracted critical business professionals such as blacksmiths into town, along with purveyors of vice, which helped attract more frontiersmen to the city. Early real estate records show that 90% of the city’s first businesses were built on Maynard’s land or immediately adjacent to his plot.

Left Out of The History Books

While Maynard obviously did a lot to help establish the town, he was left out of history books and almost completely forgotten about until Bill Speidel’s research helped bring his contributions to light. So why would such a key figure in the town’s founding be forgotten? Mostly because he was seen to be amoral. When Maynard left Cleveland in 1850, he was married to a woman named Lydia. She eventually filed for divorce on grounds of desertion, but she never completed the divorce. Before arriving in Seattle, the good doctor circulated amongst several wagon trains, helping to fight cholera. While serving as the leader on a small wagon train that brought him to Puget Sound, he fell in love with a widow, Catherine Troutman Broshears. At first, her brother refused her permission to remarry, but after Maynard made a good deal of money in Seattle, he relented and the couple was married. Years latter, Maynard’s first wife sold off her share of property and the man who purchased it then went after Maynard, claiming he was owed everything that was Lydia’s since the couple was never officially divorced. Lydia came to Seattle to help defend her husband and Catherine and the doctor became friends with her and let her live in their home. According to Speidel, Doc Maynard was the only resident that was commonly seen with one wife on each arm.

Aside from his adulteress nature, Maynard was also known to be a serious drunkard and prominently supportive of businesses dealing with vice, including saloons, casinos and brothels.

An Environmental Disaster

Seattle was established as a logging town. The area it was built on was covered with 1000-2000 year old trees that stood as high as 400 feet tall. Naturally for a logging industry with this much potential, a sawmill was necessary to process the wood, so when Henry Yesler moved from Ohio with a $30,000 loan to establish a sawmill, Maynard and Denny both donated land to him. The land was just west of Pioneer Square, in between the two properties and right on the waterway. The mill was all set to make a fortune as Seattle was poised to be the main lumber supplier for San Francisco, which had a constant need for building supplies. Interestingly, Yesler made more money from real estate than he did from his mill and quickly became the city’s first millionaire. The sawmill was at the bottom of the hill, so trees were harvested and then rolled down the street to the mill, which inspired the name “skid road.” When the area became dilapidated in the twentieth century, it led to the adaptation of the term “skid row” to describe a scummy part of town. Yesler’s steam-powered saw mill had ample sawdust, which ended up coming in handy as the mud-ridden streets of the tide flats required something to help fill in the constant potholes. So, Yesler donated his mill’s waste to the streets. Of course, the rotting wood surrounded in mud wasn’t entirely effective and the early stories of San Francisco describe a number of horses and dogs sinking into the mud up to their necks and at least one person being killed in the mud, which sometimes sank like quicksand. Aside from sawdust, Yesler also donated wood to help the city create its first sewage systems. Their first attempt consisted of a v-shaped trough above ground, which stank and leaked into the streets. This was soon replaced with an underground system that used hollowed-out logs. Unfortunately, because the pipes went directly into the sound, the high tide sent the sewage right back up, so everyone was advised to avoid flushing at high tide or risk a fountain shooting from their toilet.

The Trouble With A Lumber Town

Given how much timber was readily available in the area, it’s not entirely surprising that the majority of the city’s buildings were made from wood. Because the city was built on a tide flat, many of them were even built on wooden stilts. Add a ton of wooden buildings, wooden water pipes and sawdust shavings lining the streets, it’s easy to see how much of a fire trap the city was. Unsurprisingly, when a cabinet maker accidentally started a glue fire in 1889, it spread quickly throughout the town. In the end, somewhere between 25 and 29 blocks were completely destroyed, including the city’s entire business district, four of the wharfs, and the city’s railroad terminals. Luckily, no one was killed in the massive blaze.

The Great Rebuilding

Bill Speidel often joked that the fire was known as the “Great Seattle fire” because it allowed the city to rebuild in a way that would get rid of all of their terrible problems. They could install real underground plumbing that wouldn’t shoot back in the pipes during high tide, they could regrade the streets so the high tide wouldn’t flood buildings and streets. To prevent future fire hazards, an ordinance required that all businesses downtown be made from brick and stone. Unfortunately, the city renovation caused a conflict between the business owners, who wanted to reopen as soon as possible, and the city, who wanted to regrade the streets, which would take years. A compromise was soon reached, allowing the businesses to rebuild immediately on the tide flats as the city would regrade the streets. This meant the city would install massive retaining walls around the sidewalks and ladders could be used to climb from the elevated streets into the city’s underground sidewalks and into the store entrances. Eventually, the sidewalks were built over the underground area, connecting the second or third stories of the buildings to the street-level. Interestingly, the fire also led to an economic boom, as construction workers rushed to the city to help rebuild businesses and streets alike. By the time of Speidel’s Underground Tour, most people in the city thought the underground was just a rumor, but once the tour opened up, residents and visitors alike were amazed to discover the city’s fascinating buried history. The story of Seattle’s founding isn’t just interesting for the tales of corruption and entrepreneurship, it also serves as a perfect example of how history can be reshaped as it is retold. Without Speidel’s research, Maynard and the city’s underground would likely still be lost to history. Who knows how many other cities have similar tales hiding just below the surface of the sparkly clean stories in history books? Sources: Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, Seattle PI, History Link #1, #2, UWSP and Underground Tour


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I spent a couple of months last year working for a not-quite-startup in Pioneer Square that was at the time based out of a third-floor walkup in Pioneer Square. The building I was in was built just after the fire in 1889, and looked every day of its 120 years. They moved to a slightly more respectable building a couple of months after I started, but it was an interesting place to work, even if getting there required a trip up the second most dangerous looking staircase I've ever seen.
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I really enjoyed the underground tour while in Seattle two years ago since I knew absolutely nothing about the history of the city. But it isn't for everyone and I can imagine that if you don't get a good guide that it could be boring. There was a couple behind me on the tour complaining that it wasn't as good as Underground Atlanta. I guess they were expecting Johnny Rockets and a 'As Seen on TV' store.
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You have to love and appreciate history for the Underground Tour to appeal to you. It's better for people who are into urban exploration than people who like sight seeing tours.

If you go expecting to see some a picturesque window into pre-fire Seattle, you will be sorely disappointed.

Perhaps more exciting still are the miles and miles and miles of The Underground that the tour doesn't cover. Anywhere you see the glass block "skylights" embedded in the cement in the above ground sidewalks, that's where the the underground city is. It sprawls.

Unfortunately, Seattle keeps a tight grip on it. Go looking for an entrance into the rest of that underground city and you won't get very far.
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